Friday, August 22, 2003

THIRD AND LONG? BRING IT ON


They say the best things come in threes: NBA titles, Godfather movies, stooges ...... and then there are Ben Roethlisberger, Gino Guidugli and Jared Lorenzen. Blink, and you might miss something.

By Bill Koch
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Randy Stegman played wide receiver at Highlands High School in the 1990s, the Bluebirds were so good they didn't often find themselves in a situation where they needed to throw a so-called Hail Mary pass the length of the field to pull out a victory.

But they practiced it anyway, usually on Thursdays, the day before game day. That's when Stegman had a chance to marvel at the strength of Jared Lorenzen's arm. He still marvels at it six years later.

"It's unbelievable how far he can throw the ball," Stegman said. "He'd throw it from our own 15- or 20-yard line and I'd catch it in the end zone. It was amazing."

After graduating from Highlands in 1999, Lorenzen moved on to play at the University of Kentucky. A year earlier, Stegman had enrolled at Miami, where he would hook up with another quarterback who amazed him, not by the sheer power of his arm, but by his field presence and the uncanny accuracy of his passes.

His name was Ben Roethlisberger. He was from Findlay, Ohio, and the magic he performed with a football was every bit as remarkable to Stegman as anything his buddy Lorenzen could do.

"His accuracy is phenomenal," Stegman said of Roethlisberger. "He's got such a good ability on touch and feel. He knows exactly how hard he has to throw, what he has to do to get through traffic or over the linebackers."

Stegman considers himself fortunate to have caught passes from two such gifted quarterbacks. He didn't get as much of a chance to play with Cincinnati's Gino Guidugli, who was three years behind him at Highlands, but he remembers Guidugli as a quiet, skinny high school freshman and now sees him as a poised, polished college QB who has blossomed into one of the best in the country.

Miami's Roethlisberger, a fourth-year junior; Kentucky's Lorenzen, a fifth-year senior; and Cincinnati's Guidugli, a true junior, have made this area a mecca for prolific passers this season. Together, the three quarterbacks have passed for 20,592 yards and 147 touchdowns during their college careers. They've set 18 school records.

And they're not finished yet.

All three are ranked among the nation's top 20 quarterbacks by The Sporting News, with Guidugli at No. 13, followed by Roethlisberger at No. 15 and Lorenzen at No. 19. Phil Steele's College Football Preview lists Roethlisberger as the third-best quarterback in the land behind Mississippi's Eli Manning and Tennessee's Casey Clausen. Lorenzen is No. 7, Guidugli No. 23.

Head of the class

According to Jerry Jones, who compiles The Drugstore List of NFL draft prospects, Roethlisberger is the most highly regarded of the three. He was one of six quarterbacks invited this summer to the Elite 11 quarterbacks camp in San Diego, and only the second from a school that is not a part of the Bowl Championship Series. The other was Fresno State's David Carr, who was the first pick in the 2002 NFL draft.

"If you had all three of them to choose from tomorrow," Jones said, "you would take the Miami kid. He's got a big, strong arm and a great sense of what's going on the field. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Roethlisberger is the guy everybody is really interested in right now."

At 6 feet 5, 242 pounds, Roethlisberger is tall enough to see over defenses. He's also mobile enough to evade a pass rush. Considering he did not play the position as a junior at Findlay High School - the coach's son was awarded the job - and was redshirted as a freshman at Miami, what he has accomplished in his first two years is remarkable.

"He has the size, the agility and just the flat natural ability to throw the football," said Miami head coach Terry Hoeppner. "It appears effortless."

Roethlisberger, who has completed 63 percent of his passes at Miami, had to play wide receiver during his junior year in high school. He won't say the experience was good for his development but does concede that it helped him "see the other side of the ball, see what the receivers see."

When he was moved to quarterback as a senior, his numbers were stunning. He set state records with 4,041 yards and 54 touchdowns and suddenly became a hot college prospect.

Miami was one of the first schools to recruit him. To allay any doubts Roethlisberger might have had about attending the lower-profile Mid-American Conference, Hoeppner was quick to point to former Marshall quarterback Chad Pennington, a Heisman Trophy candidate who would be drafted by the New York Jets with the 18th pick the following spring.

By the time Ohio State got around to wooing him, Roethlisberger was hooked on Miami. And he hasn't changed his mind just because the Buckeyes won the national championship last season.

"People asked me last year when they won the national championship if I wished I had gone there," Roethlisberger said, "but I don't. If I was there, who knows? That's too many what-ifs for me. I'm happy where I am."

Roethlisberger has played against UC's Guidugli twice, with Miami winning close games both times. He has never played against Lorenzen, but he has seen enough of him on television to know about that powerful arm. Even if he hadn't, he would have his friend Stegman's word to go by.

"We all bring something different to the table," Roethlisberger said. "Jared's got a rifle. Coaches always say you can't throw a ball through a car wash without getting it wet, but I think he might be able to. And Gino is really good with his feet. He moves really well."

Follow the leader

The nimble Guidugli is often at his best throwing on the run. A right-handed passer, he has the rare ability to throw accurately and forcefully even while he's moving to his left and throwing back across his body.

But it's his knack for leading stirring comebacks that has become his trademark at UC, beginning with his first college game in 2001 when he came off the bench after starter Adam Hoover was injured, and rallied the Bearcats from deficits three times in the fourth quarter to beat Army on a 12-yard touchdown pass with seven seconds to go.

"I've learned to believe," UC coach Rick Minter said. "After watching him for some 20-plus games, I really believe that's when he's at his pure best. Maybe it's instinct. He can get the ball pretty quickly where it belongs. It's confidence. He's a gun-slinger. He fears nothing."

Guidugli's arm isn't as strong as Lorenzen's, but he throws a beautiful pass in his own right and has the competitive zeal that his teammates and coaches rally around. In his two years at UC, he has led the Bearcats to seven fourth-quarter comebacks and, if it weren't for two dropped passes in the closing seconds, would have engineered an upset that would have prevented Ohio State from winning the national championship.

Guidugli led Conference USA in total offense and pass efficiency in 2002 but was unhappy with his season because he was intercepted 21 times.

"I think last year teams were more prepared for me than I was for them," Guidugli said. "Last year, I didn't really have the underneath pass."

The 6-3, 220-pound Guidugli originally signed with UK, but when head coach Hal Mumme resigned in the wake of an NCAA investigation, he reconsidered and ended up at UC.

"A lot of people questioned my decision," Guidugli said. "But you've got to go with your instinct. I feel lucky to be at UC."

UK history in the making

That's not to say Guidugli wouldn't have relished the chance to battle Lorenzen for the starting job at Kentucky. The two quarterbacks have been friends since Guidugli was in seventh grade, and he credits Lorenzen for teaching him much of what he knows about playing quarterback.

"Jared's my main man," Guidugli said. "He was a senior (at Highlands) when I was a sophomore. I was his backup quarterback. I learned a lot just watching him be a leader on the field. He was somebody to model myself after."

But that didn't deter Guidugli from competing against him, too, especially on the basketball court, where Guidugli often guarded the burly 6-4 Lorenzen during practice.

Lorenzen remembers those confrontations well.

"I thought I'd be able to bully him," he said, "take him to the post. But he'd pinch you and bite you and keep you out of the post. That boy could flat-out shoot. He didn't miss."

Lorenzen's arm strength might be his greatest asset, but his most noticeable trait at first glance is his size. He's listed at 260 on UK's Web site, but he's believed to be closer to 300, constructed more like an offensive lineman than a quarterback.

Ever since he was a kid - he weighed 13 pounds, 3 ounces at birth - his weight has been an issue, and it remains one today. Lorenzen can joke about it and he understands the curiosity over such a mammoth quarterback, but he won't reveal his weight.

"That's my little secret," he said. "It will always be an issue because people will always say you can get smaller, but I've worked my butt off to get in the best shape I can get in."

Lorenzen, a left-hander who led the Southeastern Conference last season with 24 touchdowns - with just five interceptions - has endured plenty of turmoil at UK. In addition to the NCAA sanctions, as he begins his senior year, he'll be playing for his third head coach since he arrived at UK in 1999 as a redshirt freshman.

Two years ago, Lorenzen lost his starting job for four games to Shane Boyd and rumors began to circulate that he planned to transfer to another school.

"I never came close (to transferring) at all," Lorenzen said. "That's something that people started because I wasn't playing, but that was something that just grounded me and got me prepared for what life can be like without football."

As he begins his final year at UK, Lorenzen's goal is to lead his team to a bowl game. Already the owner of seven school records - including the career standard for total offense - he'll probably break Tim Couch's career records for passing yardage, touchdowns and attempts.

"It would be cool if I could get those," Lorenzen said, "but he's a god around here, so you don't want to make people too mad."

Catch 'em while you can

This could be the last year for Roethlisberger at Miami, too, if he chooses to leave school early for the NFL draft, a prospect Hoeppner tries not to contemplate.

The Miami coach is hoping the presence of Michigan on next year's schedule will be enough to keep Roethlisberger in Oxford for his senior season. Roethlisberger's first college game was in Ann Arbor, and according to Hoeppner, he wants nothing more than another shot at the Wolverines.

Roethlisberger won't discuss the possibility that he might leave Miami early.

"I'll tell you what I tell everybody who asks me that question," he said. "The only thing I'm thinking about right now is the Iowa game."

The RedHawks open their season against the defending Big Ten co-champion Hawkeyes on Aug. 30 at Iowa.

In other words, Roethlisberger chooses to live in the present. That may be sound advice for college football fans in this area, too, fans who might never see three such accomplished quarterbacks pass through here at the same time again. Enjoy them while you can.

E-mail bkoch@enquirer.com